Politics & Policy

Golden Days

Standing with Buckley & co. & at 50 years young.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of National ReviewThis year also launches the decade in which William F. Buckley Jr., the magazine’s founder and guiding spirit, starts his career as an octogenarian. As one of the most productive and accomplished septuagenarians of the 20th century, observers feel he shows great promise as a rookie in his new career.

The shock that these two anniversaries would arrive in the same year has caught some of us off guard. Who among the revelers celebrating the 40th anniversary of National Review and the 70th birthday of its founder could have guessed that the stars would so align again a mere ten years hence? Not me.

Regardless, National Review has responded with a fitting series of pageants, parties, fanfares, and festschrifts to the magazine and the man who created it. I’ve already sacrificed 50 bulls in Buckley’s honor and now, if you don’t mind, I thought I’d sneak a small ode onto the pile.

It is just one sign of National Review’s success that people think American conservatism is very old. It’s not. In fact, even as we conservatives cheer the “wisdom of the ancients” and decry the modernity and even postmodernity of our ideological adversaries, American conservatism is arguably the youngest ideology on the block. Marxism, which still clings on like a tough carpet mold in a faculty lounge, is well over a century old. As are all of its dirigiste and supposedly revolutionary offspring, including socialism, environmentalism, feminism, and even anarchism. Even the “Youth Movement” began in Italy some 90 years ago.

It’s always good to remember that most of those face-pierced, self-proclaimed revolutionaries marching with giant puppets and painting Hitler mustaches on George W. Bush are really the shock troops of ideological kitsch.

And in the Beginning…

Conservatism in America begins in the 1950s with National Review. If you hear someone talking about the Old Right of the 1930s, and how that’s what defines “real conservatism,” you’ve either met a very grumpy agrarian poet, a cape-wearing anarchist with oddly pro-Belgian tendencies, an angry Prussian socialist of some kind, a fusty Whig–or, most likely, someone who simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

It would be an exaggeration to say the “Old Right” is a myth, but the term is really more of a label imposed on a eclectic collection of “superfluous men” who stood outside of the historical currents, lamenting the rush and foam of the Progressive tide. But they belonged to no movement, shared little that could be called a political program, and, as a group, if they voted at all, they did so the way a man in a blindfold shoots a gun at a crowd.

Now, of course, there have always been small-c conservatives. The conservative temperament is bred into our genes. The first small-c conservative probably said something like, “I know these berries won’t kill me. About those berries, I am not so sure.”

A liberal might read that sentence and exclaim, “Aha! Conservatism is based on fear. Liberalism is based on hope!” And, to a certain extent, the liberal would be right. But the conservative’s fear is also a form of caution based upon experience (I know this berry is good. I have no information about that berry). The liberal’s hope, meanwhile, is often based on ignorance and foolish optimism. “Maybe that tiger likes to be tickled. I will find out. It shall be great fun.”

Perhaps this dynamic is why liberalism took so long to manifest itself. Its most exuberant adherents kept getting eaten by tigers (which, by the way, is a metaphor for millennia of trial and error, mostly error).

Indeed, classical liberalism got its start in the bloody wars which came out of the reformation. “Before the reformation,” wrote Lord Hugh Cecil, “it is impossible to distinguish conservatism in politics, not because there was none, but because there was nothing else.” While lacking in totalitarian technology, European monarchs had a surfeit of totalitarian metaphysics. Everybody believed that the state was there to impose a religious worldview on the whole of society. Dissenters from that worldview didn’t like it. The horrific fights between Catholics and Protestants–not to mention the Inquisition, the expulsions of Jews from various lands, etc–raged for more than a century until finally a few tired folks declared, “let’s call a draw!” And the compromises inherent to that draw came to be called liberalism. Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Montesquieu, and the gang crafted this neat theory which said the state is formed to protect the interests of individuals. Our rights to life and property exist prior to the state’s right to exist. If the state violates the former it abdicates its claim to the latter.

Anyway, fast forward to the Progressive era (cue “boo” track). The Progressives, borrowing deeply from Germany in general and Hegel, Marx, and Darwin in particular, broke this covenant. The Progressives revived what amounted to the medieval view of society as a living organism with the state–run by experts–as the new king. Hegel had declared in The Philosophy of History that “the state is the actually existing, realized moral life. . . . The divine idea as it exists on earth.” The Progressives believed this, particularly Woodrow Wilson, who was a soaked-to-the-bone Hegelian. I get into a lot of this in my in-progress book (almost done–really!), so let’s just say that Jane Addams, the high priestess of Progressivism, spoke for an entire generation when she said “we must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in the connection with the activity of the many.”

This spirit deeply informed not just the New Deal but also the academy. The modern university and the professionalized academic disciplines of political science and economics were dominated by a whole generation of German-trained academics. Charles Beard, Richard Ely, EA Ross, Woodrow Wilson, WEB Du Bois, and countless others were all indoctrinated with the Progressive vision of the god-state, and they imposed that vision on the modern university. By 1934, the Committee on Social Studies of the American Historical Association matter-of-factly reported: “The age of individualism and laissez faire in economy and government is closing and the new age of collectivism is emerging.” When Bill Buckley showed up at Yale, a decade and half later, such ideas had been absorbed into the woodwork, becoming the new conventional wisdom. Progressivism was now called “liberalism” even though it represented the exact opposite.

Lionel Trilling’s famous observation, made in 1950, is worth recalling even if it has become a cliché to do so:

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation… the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not… express themselves in ideas but only… in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

The problem with the overuse of this quote is that it is often used misleadingly. The conservatism Trilling refers to isn’t really the conservatism of today. People throw out this quote and then celebrate the irony that Buckley’s God and Man at Yale came out the next year. But Buckley’s conservatism–or what came to be Buckley’s conservatism–had never existed before. Buckley’s emergence didn’t prove that Trilling was wrong; it proved that Trilling was outdated.

The core of American conservatism–which is Buckleyite conservatism–is traditional Anglo-American liberalism. Indeed, the rise of modern conservatism predates Buckley’s arrival in that it was the libertarians who first rattled the cage of Progressive groupthink after World War II. There’s a reason why the first chapter in George Nash’s still-indispensable history of the conservative movement is titled “Revolt of the Libertarians.” But a tradition is not an ideology. And in the early days of the Cold War, with the God-state marching abroad and at home, Buckley recognized it takes an ideology to fight an ideology. And within that ideology the importance of the individual is enormous, but nonetheless insufficient. Which is just one reason why Buckley refers to “Christian individualists” in God and Man at Yale and not mere “individualists.”

Buckley understood that anyone, even barbarians, can be “individualists.” Individualism, properly understood, requires a larger moral and political context to work. The liberalism of the American founders was formed with a moral and metaphysical superstructure, which had been eroded by industrialization, urbanization, and the steady flotsam of various statist ideologies washing up on our shores. Pragmatism, reform Darwinism, progressivism, socialism and countless other isms had belittled and diminished the “old dogmas” of liberty, as the desiccated carapaces shed off by History on the March. The secular collective, not the Christian individual, was the form the God-state chose to manifest itself in this time.

Hence National Review got to work trying to craft a new ideology which stood up to Hegel’s historicist God-state. Indeed, had not Hegel proclaimed that the state was the “march of God on earth”? That is the History National Review was founded to stand athwart and yell “Stop” to.

The First Neocons

Today, uninformed or disingenuous people seem to think that neoconservatism is warmed-over Trotskyism while the original National Review represented “real” and “American” conservatism. This has a lot to do with the fact that the so-called neoconservatives, who arrived a generation after National Review, were former Communists and Trotskyites.

The problem with this analysis is that it leaves out the fact that many of the titans who founded the National Review were the all-star team of ex-Communists while the neoconservatives were at best the equivalents of gophers and interns in the Communist party. James Burnham was a member of the Trotskyite Fourth International, co-edited The New International, and was in near constant contact with Trotsky by telegram for years. Max Eastman was Trotsky’s translator and American literary agent. Will Herberg had once been so committed to Communism he and his wife refused to have children because they believed nothing should distract them from world revolution (he was kicked out of the American Communist party for opposing Stalin’s purge of Bukharin) Whitaker Chambers was, of course, a major Communist spy (as was–heh–Alger Hiss). The relevance of so many former Communists working on a conservative magazine exceeds the fun in disputing the anti-neocon crowd. These men understood the appeal of the God-state and the need to break the spell it held on millions. This required forging a new ideology which took account of the old things which were no less true for being old.

The heat of that forge came from anti-Communism. In many respects American conservatism was an attempt to create a rationale for defending everything the Soviet Union was not. Our constitutional rights limit the power of government while expanding the liberty of the individual (despite FDR’s attempts to reverse this arrangement). The Soviet bill of rights expanded the power of government and curtailed the autonomy of the individual.

Conservatives favored geographic diversity, allowing localities to govern themselves (a principle some conservatives unfortunately supported to the point of perversity, as in the case of Jim Crow). The progressive mind at home and abroad believed in the One Best Way for everything. The conservative mind championed transcendence, the authority of God and the wisdom of the ancients. The progressive mind chuckled at transcendence, disputed the authority of God when it interfered with the expertise of the state and scoffed at the wisdom of the ancients as the prattling of irrelevant, greedy dead men in funny clothes. Conservatives saw nothing wrong–and much that was right–with attaching one’s loyalties to a place, a specific civilization; and if that meant defending that place and that civilization, then so be it. The progressive mind is universal and cosmopolitan and hence finds its allegiance in concepts of the parliaments of man. He strives for utopia–which means “no place.” The conservative strives for eutopia, which simply means the “good place.” Conservatives value the berry in hand, while the progressive fantasizes about the berry never tasted.

Freedom vs. Virtue

With this in mind, Buckley employed intellectual ruthlessness and relentless personal charm to keep that which is good about libertarianism, what we’ve come to call “social conservatism,” and what was necessary about anti-Communism in the movement. This meant throwing friends and allies off the bus from time to time. The Randians, the Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, the Birchers, the anti-Semites, the me-too Republicans: All of these groups in various combinations were purged from the movement and masthead, sometimes painfully, sometimes easily, but always with the ideal of keeping the cause honest and pointed north to the ideal fixed in his compass.

That ideal has come to be called “fusionism” which seeks to bind the imperatives of virtue and freedom. While these two principles may rest comfortably in our own hearts and minds, making them work perfectly on paper has eluded us. The General Unified Theory of Conservatism has never been worked out. The man who tried the hardest was Frank Meyer, the author of fusionism (even though it was actually Brent Bozell who came up with the label–as an insult). The basic point of fusionism was that virtue must be humanity’s aim, but virtue must be freely chosen–otherwise, it’s just so much conditioning.

The great irony is that Buckley failed, at least in this respect. Conservative dogma remains unsettled, conservatism remains cleaved ideologically. (The best Buckley himself could offer were some “Notes Toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism.”) We still debate what the “conservative” position is on foreign policy, the role of government at home, and when the pursuit of virtue should trump freedom and vice versa. Where Buckley succeeded was in proving that a political movement could thrive even as it constantly reexamines its first principles. Indeed, Buckley proved that a political movement is more likely to succeed when it keeps its intellectual fighting skills sharp by skirmishing internally. If that violates the aesthetics of the cult of unity, so be it. Unity is a high political value, but a low philosophical one. Conservatives understand the best we’ll ever get is a eutopia anyway.

Bill Buckley Changed the World

That is a good lesson for both conservatives and liberals alike. Liberal dogma has been settled for a very long time. Like a varnish, progressive ideology has seeped so deep into the grain of liberalism that its adherents cannot even recognize it as a stain. It is simply the natural color of the Way Things Are. The merit of a state which should always seek to do good where it can and when it can is no longer a philosophically debatable proposition for them. It is simply common sense. Arguments about philosophy still occur on some campuses, but out in the world the only arguments are about tactics. Hence the irony of those desperately trying to recreate the “conservative infrastructure”–think tanks, talk radio, magazines, etc. Conservatism didn’t rise because conservatives had buildings and paper; it rose because of the arguments contained therein.

And that is the lesson for conservatives as well. Success breeds laziness and power feeds the cancer of self-justification. Too many conservatives today subscribe to the view that something is conservative if it helps conservatives–usually defined as Republicans. But a movement which was born with an open and healthy hostility to the Republican party should not forget that good arguments breed good policies.

This began as what I’d hoped to be a short toast to a great man to whom I owe much but have almost never offered tribute or gratitude. But I’m afraid my desire to have an argument has gotten the better of me, which itself is a form of tribute.

But I should say this: William F. Buckley understood that conservatism can only be a partial philosophy of life, because any calling which claims to be a whole philosophy of life is not one at all. It is a religion, and in all likelihood a false one. Armed with this conviction, he changed the world by arguing with those who could not comprehend that a man could be joyful, charming, generous, and passionate about hobbies and people far outside politics while walking against what all the right people insisted was the tide of All Good Things. In this he remains the archetype for conservatism, properly understood.

Conservatives believe in dreams but we don’t believe they can ever be made reality in this life. Nonetheless, when Bill Buckley once asked, “Have you ever seen a dream walking?” he may not have realized that for conservatives, at least, he was the answer to his own question.


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